Larry had hustled enough change for a cup of hot tea from the 17th Street McDonald's. On a rainy November Saturday, the warmth of the beverage and the building provided temporary respite from what promised to be a long, dreary evening.

Larry, a small man with graying hair, fears the predators who roam the shelters for the homeless. He had a blanket tucked away from the rain, and, as he has done for the past year, he planned to take his chances sleeping outside.

But first he would enjoy the tea and a meal, courtesy of a generous soul who had handed him a plastic bag full of food from Safeway. While Larry had puzzled about what to do with a can of soup, not having any place to heat it, he made a sandwich out of the bread and meat in the bag. For a few moments, at least, he did not worry about having no place to call home.

Down the street, pencil-thin Charlene was not in her usual place in front of the 7-Eleven, where she quietly asks passersby for change and wishes them a good evening. Perhaps she was at her sister's, where she says she can stay from time to time. Or maybe she was at a friend's. But her life indoors -- wherever and whenever it may be -- is not one that keeps her off the streets on many cold nights.

Carl was not around, either. He has HIV. While he is able to get his medication from the Whitman-Walker Clinic, he says sleeping outside makes his condition worse. An articulate man, obviously embarrassed by his circumstances, Carl, too, fears the shelters. The word is that he has found a place to stay in Southeast -- at least for a while.

At Dupont Circle, a singer sometimes croons Tina Turner's "Proud Mary" in the hope that movie- and restaurant-goers might drop a few coins in his collection cup.

It's impossible to miss the baritone voice bellowing a few feet from the Metro escalator. But it takes a bit of effort to learn that the singer came to the District for a job years ago, started hearing voices and now takes medication to keep his demons at bay. When the singer, who prefers to remain nameless, has a few dollars in his pocket, he says he gets a room downtown, but mostly he camps in the parks.

Larry, Charlene, Carl and the singer are among the most visible of the thousands of homeless people in the D.C. area. Yet even they often go unseen because so few people make eye contact or care to know who they really are.

With the holiday season upon us, kind people throughout the region will help the hungry and the homeless by donating money, food and clothing. But humanity loses when talking to the people you are trying to help is not part of the equation. Stereotypes don't go away when we are afraid to extend our hearts as well as our pocketbooks.

Yes, many of the homeless fit the out-of-their-minds or hooked-on-drugs-and-alcohol images, and a few can be dangerous. However, plenty are simply in need of housing, work, health care and friends -- the things we all need to prosper.

In offering a kind word and lending an ear to those who ask for change or appear in need, we enrich them -- and ourselves.

Consider Lee Stringer. If you had seen him on the streets of New York a few years ago, you might have dismissed him as another homeless junkie. But then you would have lost an opportunity to know something about a man who wrote:

"Money is not the only means by which you can help people. Isolation, alienation, disenfranchisement -- issues that aren't easily faked -- take the greatest toll on people living in the streets. Your genuine interest in getting to know someone cut off from society can be, in and of itself, supremely effective.

"Policy," he continued, "is never the real issue. The real issue is the hearts of men."

These wise words appear in Stringer's nonfiction work "Grand Central Winter," listed by the New York Times as a "notable" book in 1998.

On the streets and in the parks and shelters of Washington and its suburbs, other Larrys, Charlenes, Carls and Lee Stringers are struggling to survive. Try saying hello to them when you have the chance.

-- Richard Pretorius

is a copy editor at The Post.